THE TRIALS OF GABRIEL FERNANDEZ is a brutal, unflinching account of one child’s suffering, the few people who tried to help him, and the shocking number of times the system failed him.
Gabriel Fernandez was just a kid when he died. He was just a kid when his parents called him “gay” and burned him with cigarettes. He was just a kid when he was shoved into a cabinet smaller even than Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs – with no food or water. He was just a kid when he had to lie to his teacher to hide his abuse because he knew if she reported it, the beating he’d get from his parents after CPS left would be that much more vicious. He was eight years old when he died, due to the overwhelming abuse perpetrated by his own mother and her partner.
Perhaps the moral of this tragic story can be summed up by a simple explanation from a child protective services officer during the six-part series. She said that the system is focused on family preservation, with little emphasis on child rights.
I just keep saying that phrase – family preservation. What she’s saying is that their job is to do as little harm to a family as possible, while also checking into cases of abuse. Taking a child away from a family is the last resort, and something most officials are taught to avoid at all costs. That makes sense. It shouldn’t be easy to tear apart a family. However, if there are reports of abuse, shouldn’t the child’s wellbeing take precedence to not making a scene, and not upsetting a negligent or abusive parent?
One might think so, but that is just very much not the case. And never is it more evident than in the infuriating story of Gabriel Fernandez. Part of this documentary focuses on the guilty: Gabriel’s mother, who gave him away to his uncle three days after he was born because she was “already sick of him,” her boyfriend, who committed such atrocious acts of violence it makes me want to support the death penalty, and his grandfather, who was so afraid of his grandson becoming a “faggot” (not my words!), that he removed him from a happy and safe home, therefore sealing his fate. The other part, however, focuses on the egregious failure on behalf of the state.
For example, when Los Angeles county discovered a reporter was looking into the Gabriel Fernandez case, they searched EVERY single email said reporter sent to ANYONE working in the county, as well as every response he had gotten from any county employee about everything. That’s thousands of emails they sorted through in an attempt to silence a horrible injustice. Yet where were they the four or five times Gabriel’s teacher reported signs of abuse? Where were they when former security guard Arturo Miranda Martinez was told not to report Gabriel’s abuse that was so overt and shocking that he noticed it simply from the child walking by him at the Gain office?
Martinez was literally told to drop it because Suzanne Harms did not want to pay for workers to have overtime. It was a Friday, and they wanted to go home. Don’t get me wrong, I know that Friday feeling. You work hard all week, and the second the weekend finally starts you want to run out of the building like Bradley Cooper in The Hangover, shouting, “It’s the weekend. I don’t know you.”
However, I’m an entertainment reporter. No children will die if I cut out early on a Friday. That is not so for these city officials, who basically dug an eight-year-old child his grave because they just couldn’t be bothered to care.
In certain parts of this documentary, you can see gruff, grown men on the stand in a full courtroom with tears in their eyes. THAT’S how affected they all are by this case.
Watching it, I found myself getting angry at Gabriel’s teacher – Jennifer Garcia – for letting him go home when she saw, time and time again, that he was covered in bruises, burn marks, and other signs of abuse. You can’t hear about a case like Gabriel’s and not become filled with self-righteous anger. There were just so many chances to stop this. It reminded me of reading Romeo and Juliet in junior high, and how angry it made me. If they had just waited for a second and listened to each other they would still be alive!
But this is much more tragic. Because not only is the protagonist a child, but this really happened. Even after watching an entire documentary series on it … it still doesn’t feel real. How could the system fail this child so badly?
But of course, Garcia couldn’t just kidnap him. She knew Gabriel was being abused. She wasn’t afraid to report it, afraid to cause trouble if she was wrong and it wasn’t true. She actually reported the abuse numerous times. In the documentary, she recalls leaving voicemails for social worker Stefanie Rodriguez, who never called her back.
Mind you, Rodriguez did check in on Gabriel here and there, but she did very shallow reporting, believing the boy’s mom when she told him the clear acts of abuse were simply “accidents.” She also didn’t fill out a body chart, a basic and obvious component of her job, which would have documented Gabriel’s extreme abuse.
At one point, Garcia even went to the principal, because she could tell things were getting worse for the battered, frail child. However, she was told not to photograph Gabriel’s bruises or burn marks, because “that would be investigating,” and that’s not what they do.
Gabriel’s mom showed one social worker suicide notes her son had written… at six years old. She mentioned it casually, as the social worker was leaving her house – as if they were some cute drawings she was giving her as a parting gift for checking in on them. “I love you so much I will kill myself,” read one of the notes, written by a child desperate to be loved by his own mother.
Perhaps the craziest – or most tragic – part of this story is that Gabriel was only under his mother’s care for EIGHT MONTHS. He had previously lived with his uncle and his partner. However, after years of love, and living as a family, Gabriel’s homophobic grandfather decided he needed to be removed, because if he loved his gay fathers, then naturally he, too, would end up gay. Instead, he ended up dead. (At this point in my notes, I literally just wrote, “I hate everyone.”)
It only took eight months for Isauro Aguirre and Pearl Sinthia Fernandez to take a happy, loving, eight-year-old boy, and turn him into a headline. This is a couple who fed a child dirty cat litter in lieu of food. While that may be a funny scene in 1994’s The Little Rascals, when it’s something that actually happened to a human child, it’s no short of unthinkable. I literally can’t even let myself think about it, further than mentioning it for this review.
I feel the need to warn anyone curious to watch this documentary that it is detailed. There are photos, and you can clearly see the abuse of an innocent, sweet, eight-year-old boy. The documentary is so thorough, in fact, that it almost felt gratuitous at times. But I’m also not sure if I was just so overwhelmed by the outrageously vile nature of this case, that I simply couldn’t handle the truth.
There are also times that feel rife with true crime tropes, such as dramatic music overplayed with quasi, wordless reenactments. There are many shots of a grown man walking around hallways, wearing a backpack. None of that drama is necessary. This case is about an eight-year-old child who was mercilessly abused until he died. It is inherently dramatic. And traumatizing. And sad.
That aside, I appreciate the lengths THE TRIALS OF GABRIEL FERNANDEZ goes to show the systemic issues with child protective services. Because, as much as we like to blame people in cases like this, there really isn’t one person who dropped the ball. This was a system-wide failure on all fronts.
And we all know the government doesn’t like to own up to its mistakes. Many in the documentary talked about the “county family” in Los Angeles, who worked to bar anyone from finding out that, as Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark like to joke on their podcast, My Favorite Murder, it “goes all the way to the top!”
That’s probably the most important part of this documentary, aside from remembering Gabriel Fernandez as not just a victim, but as a sweet, loving young boy who didn’t get the chance at life that he deserved.
I have to admit, that the emotional, nurturing, bleeding heart Cancer in me wants to tell you, do not watch this documentary. It’s excruciating. You’ll want to cry, scream, break something – maybe even write your senator. But it’s so, so important to watch because we need to hold our government officials accountable. They are supposed to be working for us, the people, not the other way around.
We can’t just hide our heads in the sand, despite how much we (I?) may want to. THE TRIALS OF GABRIEL FERNANDEZ is important because Gabriel’s story needs to be told. Because we need to make sure that something like this can never happen again. We need to forget about reputations, scandals, and blind support in public officials. Because what should be the most important thing, today and always, is the people.
So, yes, watch THE TRIALS OF GABRIEL FERNANDEZ on Netflix. Just do so with a box of tissues, a friend, and the confidence that we can make a difference if we don’t let things like the case of Gabriel Fernandez get shoved under the rug and forgotten.
THE TRIALS OF GABRIEL FERNANDEZ debuts on Netflix February 26.